If you’re sick of the wave of comic-book movies over the last few years, you’d better brace yourself: the video game movie is coming, and it’s coming for you. The end of last week saw the announcement that another attempt is being made to ramp up zombie game “Dead Island” as a movie: originally in the works with Lionsgate back in 2011, the project’s now set up at Occupant Entertainment, which is co-producing alongside the game’s creators, Deep Silver.
The film, aiming for production to start in 2015, joins a host of others in various stages of production that may threaten the dominance of the comic book movie. This turn of events could make the hearts of many sink: the history of the video game movie is a terrible one, full of commercial flops (the top-grossing video game film ever is “Prince of Persia” with a little over $300 million worldwide, but is still seen as a huge money loser), and worse reviews. Who needs another “Super Mario Bros,” “Street Fighter” or “Max Payne?” This is far from the first time that we’ve faced such an onslaught.
But an onslaught is coming: next year brings a sixth “Resident Evil” movie, sequel/reboot “Hitman: Agent 47” and the Michael Fassbender-starring adaptation of “Assassin’s Creed,” along with sci-fi comedy “Pixels,” which isn’t based on one specific property but instead collects a bevy of 80s lo-fi game classics in one film. Beyond that, 2016 has firm release dates for “Warcraft,” “Uncharted” and “Angry Birds,” with projects like “Splinter Cell,” “Metal Gear Solid” and “The Last Of Us” firming up, along with countless others still in development. And yet there might be reason for optimism. Or at least reason to think that not all of them will be shit...
For instance, following in the footsteps of Marvel Studios, video game companies are taking their destinies into their own hands. Deep Silver’s involvement is just one example of development studios and the like stepping up: Most notably, one of the largest game companies, Ubisoft, set up their own film division in 2011, developing movies like “Assassin’s Creed” and “Splinter Cell” themselves, shouldering development costs inhouse, before partnering with studios to bring them over the finish line: an approach very much influenced by Marvel's early days.
And the creators of games have also learned not jump at the first paycheck. After a planned film version of "Bioshock" to be penned by “The Aviator” and “Skyfall” scribe John Logan and to be directed by Gore Verbinski fell apart, creator Ken Levine, told the press, “We don’t have any need to get a movie made. We’d like to have a movie made, but it would have to be the right one.” Similarly, Dan Houser, head of Rockstar Games, said in 2011 that his hugely successful “Grand Theft Auto” series wasn’t heading to the screen any time soon, saying, “If we were to make a movie, we would like to make it ourselves, or at least work in collaboration with the best talent, so at least if it is bad, we can know we failed on our own terms.”
It’s easy to understand their hesitation, given the genre's track record. Although in fairness, game developers haven’t always provided the best material. We’ve argued this point before, but the first couple of decades of the video game saw the medium taking most of its cues from the movies. “Doom” didn’t work as a movie because 'Doom' riffed so heavily on “Aliens” to begin with. “Max Payne” brought the experience of a John Woo movie to your controller, but when translated back to the screen, it just felt like a bad version of a John Woo movie. Even recent console blockbusters like 'Grand Theft Auto' riff heavily on movies.
But games like “Bioshock” and “Assassin’s Creed” are marching more to the beat of their own drum. The former has influences —“Atlas Shrugged,” “Brazil”— but turns them around into a unique hybrid. And the latter melds historical action and science fiction in a way that hasn’t been achieved onscreen before. This means there’s value in bringing certain games to the movies: to a non-game playing audience, it's fresh material based on sophisticated game storytelling (relatively sophisticated, anyway: games, even good ones, are still often frustratingly puerile in their find-the-object, kill-everything-in-the-room narrative mechanisms).
But the games are also attracting more serious talent. It’s easy to draw parallels between the first couple of decades of the video game movie and the way that comic book adaptations were stuck in the doldrums in the 1990s. Like the video game movie genre, the superhero film was treated as a way to make a quick buck: hire a cheap screenwriter, a competent director, make it for little money, and hope that enough fans recognize the brand name that the film turns a profit. And so game adaptations have so far been closer to “The Shadow,” “The Phantom,” “Steel” and “Batman & Robin” than to what we now understand the comic book movie to be.
At the end of the 1990s, something shifted with the superhero film. Whereas they were once being made by cheap, anything-for-a-gig genre helmers, major filmmakers started to tackle the material. And they took them seriously: either because they were life-long fans, like Sam Raimi with “Spider-Man,” or because they knew next to nothing about the source material but found their own hook into the essence of each book, as with Bryan Singer and “X-Men” or Christopher Nolan and the Batman films of the 2000s. These directors didn’t think of these things as comic book movies. They thought of them as just movies, and by the end of the 2000s, this turned the superhero into arguably the dominant force in worldwide pop culture.
And something similar could be about to happen with video game movies. The last generation of director geek gods, now in their 40s or 50s —J.J. Abrams, Joss Whedon, Guillermo Del Toro— grew up on comics and “Star Wars,” but the next generation is coming up, the ones in their late 20s and early 30s, for whom Link, Sonic and Cloud were just as important a part of their cultural upbringing as Spider-Man and Luke Skywalker were to the previous. And these are the guys who are starting to get the jobs in question.